Good-bye Mr. CHIPS 

After years of struggle, Mark Hurwitz beat the odds and launched this humble satellite. So why did the folks at NASA eventually make him pull the plug?

Some people dream of curing cancer. Some dream of writing the Great American Novel, or being the first black president, or riding the greatest thoroughbred in history straight to the Triple Crown. Mark Hurwitz' dream was to be the first person to analyze the spectrum of extreme ultraviolet radiation emitted by low-density gas that drifts just beyond our solar system.

In the late 1990s, directors at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had a dream as well. For years, NASA had mostly focused on massive, high-profile missions whose cost ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. They were fancy and ambitious, sure — but they were also expensive, time-consuming, and very embarrassing if they failed. But what if they could design and launch smaller satellites, built by university tinkerers and graduate students at a fraction of the usual cost, to perform critical experiments in orbit? The notion could be revolutionary, sending a small army of modest satellites into space to explore the universe on the cheap. Critical discoveries could be made for pennies on the dollar, and a completely new model of space exploration would be born.

In 1997, Hurwitz and NASA found each other and set out to make history. NASA gave Hurwitz, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley Space Science Center, a $10 million grant to build a small ultraviolet spectrometer, a telescope that would piggyback on a satellite, to explore the undiscovered continent known as hot interstellar gas plasma. Hurwitz would pioneer a new means of expanding the world of human knowledge, and lead the way for a new generation of small satellites zooming through high orbit.

Eleven years later, Hurwitz watched his baby go dark, as NASA cut off the last of his funds and forced him to turn off his satellite for good. He'd been to hell and back to get to this point, dancing through a comedy of errors that nearly destroyed his project, only to see the one discovery he yearned to make elude him in the end. Bureaucrats, terrified of a new round of public scrutiny, subjected his small project to an unexpected array of bizarre safety reviews that were never part of the plan. The intrigues of trade protectionist politics killed his first launch just before it was due to take place. Technical details he had never anticipated delayed him for years.

Although Hurwitz was hardly a rookie in the world of space exploration, midwifing his satellite transformed him from a simple tinkerer to a master of the world of space science politics and grant-writing. He never got to see the spectrum of extreme ultraviolet radiation emitted by low-density gas that drifts just beyond our solar system. But by the time it was over, Hurwitz would upend an important piece of theoretical astronomy — just not in the way he ever expected.

Then again, there's always next year.


Mark Hurwitz always knew he wanted to explore space. He got his undergraduate degree in physics from Rice University in 1982 and his Ph.D from Cal in 1990. But if you want to learn something interesting about space these days, he realized, you have to actually get into space to do it.

"In astronomy, it's not easy to come up with good science that's inexpensive," he says. "You're beyond the day when you can just slap something together with very little cost and do good science. Most of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked. ... In space, you don't need a ten-meter diameter telescope."

Hurwitz soon fell in with the UC Berkeley Space Science Laboratory, and began building orbital telescopes, working with some of the most talented people in the field. He designed instruments that were placed on sounding rockets, which lift just high enough to get into the upper atmosphere but don't settle into orbit. In the early 1990s, he led a team that built two telescopes that were used in the space shuttle. Will Marchant, who designed the software in Hurwitz' space shuttle instruments, marvels at the talent and ambition he came across back then. "He's a smart guy," Marchant says. "There aren't too many people who can be on the faculty of the Space Sciences Lab. There are astronauts, Nobel Prize winners. I'm kinda tired of being the dumbest guy in the room."

Up to that point, NASA was either funding massive projects that cost half a billion dollars, or small experiments that would serve as part of a larger mission. There was no room for small, self-contained missions that would be autonomous and cheap. Then NASA conceived of the University-Class explorers.

The University-Class Explorer Program, or UNEX, was designed to dramatically expand the number and scope of orbital science missions floating around the Earth. Whereas NASA's prior missions took years and hundreds of millions of dollars to accomplish, UNEX missions would be launched for as little as $10 million each, which would give NASA the chance to fund as many as ten a year. Individual universities would control the operation, freeing NASA to focus on the high-profile missions while getting a lot of good science done on the cheap. In addition, the program would train a new generation of scientists by letting graduate students play with millions of dollars in satellite money. Even if their project failed, an army of smart scientists would still be trained by learning how they failed. It was, it seemed, win-win.

When Hurwitz heard about the new line of grant money coming down the pipe, he immediately applied for a piece. He proposed to attach a small spectrometer onto a satellite and study the UV emissions of interstellar gas. The space between solar systems isn't pure vacuum, but is filled with low-density gas drifting in a bubble around each star, superheated to about a million degrees Kelvin and emitting an extreme range of ultraviolet radiation. "Imagine living inside a fluorescent light tube filled with glowing hot gas," he says. "The gas between the stars is also glowing, but very faintly, because it's at extremely low density."

NASA took the bait, and threw Hurwitz $9.8 million to build his telescope. His Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer Spacecraft, or CHIPSat, was underway.

He recruited Marchant to build the software, assembled the rest of his team, and went to work. They cut a deal with the communications satellite company Final Analysis, getting permission to attach their spectrometer onto one of its satellites. They built everything to precise specs, figured out how to piggyback it onto the Final Analysis satellite, and were all systems go by January 1999. Then, after almost two years of work, they got a phone call: the deal was dead.

It turned out that what Hurwitz had hoped to do was actually illegal. In 1994, American aerospace companies were growing worried about international competition in rocket manufacturing. In addition, there were growing fears about Chinese espionage in rocket science. So NASA, in a move that was partly motivated by national security and partly by trade protectionism, announced a new rule: no government-funded satellite or orbiting scientific instrument could be launched from a foreign-made rocket. Since Final Analysis planned to use a Russian rocket, CHIPSat had to scrub its launch.

"No one had dreamed that this would apply to a little project like ours," Hurwitz recalled. "But some American rocket builder made a stink, and we were way too small a project to win a political battle with Lockheed or something like that. ... Basically, NASA said, 'Sorry, Hurwitz. We approved you, but you can't do what you said you were going to do.' So we had designed a spectrometer, but how were we going to get it into orbit with a war chest of just a few million dollars?"

His team had no choice but to start cold-calling other government-funded satellite projects — at NASA, the National Science Foundation, even the military — begging them to let him attach his little spectrometer onto their baby. But no one wanted a remora attached to something they had worked so hard to design. "We're cold-calling, we're trying to tell NASA don't cancel us yet," Hurwitz recalls. "But generally, satellites are hard to build, engineers are busy solving their own problems, and the idea of taking on someone else's project as well was about as welcome as a pig in a wedding, frankly."

In addition, Marchant says, NASA began rethinking the whole UNEX program altogether. Administrators didn't do it consciously, he says; rather, they reacted to a series of high-profile missions that went terribly wrong. As the public and Congress started complaining about the screw-ups, NASA reflexively went into cover-your-ass mode, subjecting all new missions to an intense new level of safety and procedural scrutiny. This was antithetical to the very philosophy behind UNEX, which was designed to accept a certain level of risk and to give academic researchers the freedom to make mistakes if that's what it took to do something interesting. Since the amount of money involved was so relatively small, no one cared at first. But once the political climate changed, CHIPSat had to jump through new bureaucratic hoops that Hurwitz' team never imagined.

"Whenever anything bad happens, it seems that NASA gets a black eye," Marchant says. "So even though these UNEX missions weren't NASA's responsibility, we got caught up in this larger review process. ... A Mars mission that fails, that is a big deal, and you can't really allow that to happen. But it seems like there should be a mechanism to allow us human beings to fly more small missions in which you're allowed to have enough risk to keep cost and schedule down."

As project after project said no, Hurwitz' team began to get a little annoyed with him. In addition to designing and hustling to launch CHIPSat, Hurwitz had an idea: why not go be a lawyer too? He got into Boalt Law School and began studying for the bar, but his teammates felt Hurwitz was starting to sacrifice the satellite for his extracurricular interests. Fortunately, NASA came to the rescue. Since you can't find a satellite to latch onto, they said, why don't we give you some money to build your own?

"NASA did feel guilty about funding us and then telling us a few years later we couldn't do it," Hurwitz says. "So they would say, look, if you build your own satellite, maybe we could just send you up in the space shuttle and throw you overboard."

And just like that, Hurwitz had another $5 million to play with. But the team had to scramble to find a partner capable of building a satellite on such a small budget. They eventually retained a small San Diego firm called SpaceDev, and CHIPSat was ready to go once more. But then they ran into yet another problem. The shuttle, they realized, was going to fly too low.

"The space shuttle usually stays very close to Earth, and we realized that if you deployed a small satellite this close to Earth, the air friction would have been just enough to cause it to reenter the atmosphere and burn up in just a few months," Hurwitz says. "CHIPS was not going to be able to tell the space shuttle to go into a higher orbit. We just had to take what we could get." No problem, the smart fellers at SpaceDev said — we'll just rig a canister of pressurized nitrogen, dump CHIPSat overboard, and release the gas, pushing the satellite into a higher orbit. But when NASA heard about this, they said no way. Nothing zooms past the multi-billion-dollar space shuttle without years of safety reviews. The shuttle gig was dead in the water.

The CHIPSat team had one last card to play. A booster rocket for the current generation of global positioning satellites had a little extra room at its tip, and CHIPSat could squeeze into a little cranny and piggyback its way on the next GPS launch. But then NASA declared that it had just figured out a way to expand its GPS satellite capabilities. By the time CHIPSat would be ready to launch, NASA would probably need the extra space. So once again, no go.

Hurwitz was reduced to lurking around other satellite projects, hoping that one of them would fail so he could jump into their Delta rocket launch schedule. It was a ghoulish enterprise, one he likens to "looking like a vulture, circling over the dying throes of another mission." But he had run out of options.

Lo and behold, this time Hurwitz hit pay dirt. A satellite that was scheduled to launch had run into technical problems, and CHIPSat could jump into its place. The whole satellite had to be redesigned; it had originally planned to orbit along the equator, and the Delta rocket would force them to use a polar orbit. But the team went to work and got it done.

On January 12, 2003, Hurwitz grabbed his parents, his sister, his partner, and his adopted son and flew down to Vandenberg Air Force Base. As his family watched from afar, Hurwitz sat in the control room, counting down.

The rocket lifted off, and CHIPSat was deployed in the upper atmosphere, ready to go to work. After almost six years of work — six years of hustling the NASA system and working through the perils of international trade politics — Hurwitz had his baby in the air. Hurwitz' team tested the spectrometer. They pointed it near the Earth, where they could see high-energy ultraviolet radiation scattering off of helium gas. They pointed it at the moon, where they could see sunlight reflecting off the surface at just the right wavelength. They pointed it out into deep space, where the bubble of hot interstellar gas wafted between the stars and hummed with a celestial spectrum of its own. And they saw ... nothing.

Nothing. No ultraviolet radiation, no high-energy emissions, not a thing. "When the instrument didn't detect anything, our first thought was, 'Oh my God, the instrument wasn't working,'" Hurwitz says. But they checked and double-checked the systems, and tried again. And again. For months, they scanned the universe, and never once found what they were looking for: "For some reason, this hot interstellar gas wasn't doing the job."

Still, CHIPSat told humanity something very important about the nature of interstellar material. Somehow, the hot interstellar gas wasn't nearly as bright as people thought. There could be all kinds of reasons for this: the gas is farther away than surmised; the temperature of the gas could be too hot or too cold; there could be neutral gas in the way absorbing the emissions; iron in the gas could change the radiation. But after all this work, Hurwitz couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. "So we learned a little bit about hot interstellar gas," he says. "But it's not as exciting, frankly, as detecting a spectrum and doing analysis of it."

By 2005, if they wanted their satellite to stay funded, Hurwitz' team had to think up new ways CHIPSat could be useful. When a few particularly bright comets zipped through a solar system, CHIPSat trained its spectrometer on them. When it incidentally turned toward the sun, satellite operators realized that if they aimed the spectrometer at just the right angle, and rotated it just so, they could get just enough sunlight to leak through to capture an astonishing solar ultraviolet spectrum. In addition, because the satellite's orbit gave it a chance to observe a sunset every ninety minutes, they could perform new research on sunlight behavior in the thin upper atmosphere.

NASA said that was pretty neat, but in the end it just wasn't enough to justify funding staff to continue collecting CHIPSat data. The money started to run out, and Hurwitz' team glumly realized that it would have to shut its satellite down. That was harder than you might imagine.

Because they're typically so expensive to build and launch, satellites are designed with overlapping redundancies to guarantee that the instrument will work throughout its lifetime. After turning off every instrument they could, Hurwitz' team sent a signal to CHIPSat, fooling it into thinking that its antenna is too hot to transmit. On April 11, CHIPSat finally went dark.

And that was the end of NASA's once-vaunted UNEX program. Departmental politics killed the scheme after only two funded programs, and the second project never got off the ground. The grand dream to launch a thousand cheap satellites, seeding the heavens with innovative orbital research instruments, began and ended with CHIPSat. Even now, with its dying solar battery, it circles the Earth, collecting data, waiting for someone on the ground to ask it what it has found.

But even after all the headaches and bathos, the CHIPSat team wouldn't trade its experience for anything. However unexpectedly, they advanced the cause of human knowledge and learned something no one ever knew before. That, says Marchant, was worth eleven years of his life. "I'd definitely do it over again," he says. "We proved all the scientists wrong. They were sitting there all smug thinking that they knew how the universe worked, and we came along and kicked the chair out from under them. Negative science isn't always sexy. You always want to see what you expect to see. But not seeing what you think is there is very important too."

These days, Marchant is working on NASA's "Stardust at Home" project, in which data on material observed near Jupiter is uploaded onto the Internet, and amateur astronomers are invited to review sections of the impossibly vast amount of data, looking for telltale signs that some of the material came from outside the solar system. He's also busy organizing and collating the CHIPSat data from his home in Virginia.

And Hurwitz? After eleven years of shepherding CHIPSat from a diagram to a satellite about to lift off from a launching pad, and then watching as his work went silent in the upper atmosphere, Hurwitz has put research science behind him. But he's not a lawyer either; after a few years doing patent litigation, he decided that wasn't for him. He's put aside the vistas of human knowledge and the gobs of legal fees — and become a high school teacher, training a new generation in physics at San Francisco's Lick-Wilmerding High.

But the allure of those years will never leave him, and one day, NASA might revive the cheap satellite program that Hurwitz dedicated eleven years to pioneering. Although his greatest moment will always be his work with the space shuttle, Hurwitz still remembers the moment his baby sat on the launch pad at Vandenberg, ready to prod at the universe. "During the launch itself, myself and some other engineers, we sat at the consoles with headsets," he recalls. "And before they launched the rocket, they asked, 'Is CHIPSat ready to launch?' And we said yes. We had our all-systems-go moment. It was an unbelievable thrill."

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Readers also liked…

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

Holiday Guide 2018

A guide to this holiday season's gifts, outings, eats, and more.

Fall Arts 2018

Our Picks for the Best Events of the Fall Arts Season

© 2019 East Bay Express    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation